Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a star in the making?
Despite hundreds of questions facing the Oklahoma City Thunder this season, that’s the single question that looms largest in the minds of everyone from Thunder General Manager Sam Presti to Daily Thunder Commenter Sam Spence.
When the Thunder overhauled the roster over the summer by trading away beloved franchise hero Russell Westbrook and Mr. Mixed Signals Paul George, OKC fans scrambled to make sense of the return.
The treasure trove of first round picks and pick swaps were fascinating but not yet tangible. Chris Paul was a nostalgically intriguing superstar, but past antics, and the fact that he was past his prime, diminished our longing for a Ghost of Oklahoma City Past. Danilo Gallinari was an excellent player, but his contract was expiring and his elite shooting and scoring were talents [Adam Sandler voice] that could have been useful YESTERDAY!
And then there was this Shy Gildger… Shay Alexander… Shai Gilly… okay, who is this guy and how do you say his name?
“Just Shai, or SGA,” he told me with a warm smile when I asked what he preferred to be called or if he had any nicknames.
While most of Shai’s newest fans were still pronouncing his name like the one-hit wonder R&B group from the 90’s, they were also doing their due diligence by deep diving into YouTube. And the search results for “Shai Gilgeous-Alexander highlights” yielded some exciting and eyebrow-raising video clips.
Then it was off to Google to find out what NBA analysts, coaches and players thought of him.
“I said it when we drafted him. He’s gonna be a star,” Doc Rivers gushed. “He’s gonna be really good. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
“Shai’s just going to be a tremendous player in this league. He’s got instincts that set him apart from other players,” praised NBA logo and Kevin Durant thief Jerry West before calling SGA an eventual All Star.
“He’s the one. He’s the one in this draft,” cooed Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
All of a sudden, instead of feeling like the Clippers were the big market evil empire striking back, the idea of this SGA kid growing into a second era Russell Westbrook felt for the OKC optimists very much like Thunder Superstar Wars: Episode II – A New Hope.
But let’s tap the brakes just a bit. SGA had a nice rookie season, but his numbers (10.8 ppg/3.3 apg/2.8 rpg) didn’t exactly scream future superstar. So before we start booking hotels for All Star weekends, let’s press pause and get to know the man a little first.
“Yeah, definitely. From day one,” Shai replied when I asked if OKC fans showed him love as soon as the trade news broke. “They’ve embraced me and I’m super grateful for it.”
“He’s gonna be a star.”
– Doc Rivers
“It’s something I want and that I embrace.”
– Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
As soon as Thunder diehards realized Shai was the cornerstone of the Clippers haul, they immediately sent him the accustomed Oklahoma welcome wagon. Oklahomans take pride in their reputation as some of the most passionate fans and friendliest people in the country, and the bonds we form with our favorite athletes seem to rise above the standard community-to-player relationships. And nothing butters us up like Thunder players telling us they like us.
“Oklahoma kinda reminded me of Lexington, where I went to college, and Hamilton, Ontario, where I live back home. It’s kind of a homey feeling. Not the biggest city, not all the bright lights. Not a lot of people. But genuine people,” a genuinely thoughtful Shai relayed to me his first impressions of OKC and the fans. “People that care about things going on in the community. You tend to find better fanbases, honestly, in those cities because it’s the only thing they get to root for. They’re ride or die for their team. I like a city like that and that’s how Oklahoma City is.”
Okay, that sounds great, Shai, but one very real fear that Thunder fans have because of past heartbreak is that our stars will eventually get bored with our fishing ponds, Top Golf, and Lyric Theatre and will soon crave the bright lights and big cities before MAPS 4 can be completed and convince you to stay.
Now that he’s been here for a few months, I was curious if SGA had any favorite OKC hot spots.
“Mahogany is the go to after games. That’s a really good spot,” Shai, who obviously was not convinced by Chris Paul’s plant based argument, told me. “Besides that, I don’t really go out too much. I’m kind of a homebody.”
Whew! He doesn’t like to go out and have fun. We should be good, Thunder fans.
SGA has already checked all three boxes for Thunder fans’ unbridled devotion: he’s a high character person, he wants to be here and he’s a really good player.
This sophomore season, Shai has taken a major leap from his numbers last year. He is averaging 18.6 points, 3 assists and 5.1 rebounds.
“I feel like it’s going pretty well. I feel like I’ve gotten better than I was last year,” Shai reflected to me his thoughts on his season so far. “I still want more. I still want to achieve more. I still want to get better and I’m going to continue to work every day to do so.”
Gilgeous-Alexander has already proven at this early point in his career that he’s a good player. But Sam Presti cannot rebuild this Thunder team around a good player.
So the million-dollar question still looms: is SGA going to be a star?
Standing together alone just under the basket on a Thunder training facility court post practice last week, I asked the courteous, intelligent, and laid back SGA if he knew that fans saw him as the future face of the franchise and what that means to him.
“It’s not something I think about every day, but it’s something in the back of my mind,” Shai replied, this time with a little more assertion in his voice than with previous answers . “I think you can ask every player that enters the NBA, who is drafted, that’s what they want to be. They want to be in that position and have that opportunity. And it’s something that I want and that I embrace.”